Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 5, “Dedicado a Max”

Late in “Dedicado a Max,” Gus tells Mike he’s at a crossroads, but it’s also a statement that applies to Kim, who finds herself at her own crossroads. The sentiment also applies to the series more generally, or at least, my patience with certain parts of it. While the idea of a crossroads provides this episode with some thematic unity, it’s also made me realize my feelings for a central part of this series has also come to a crossroads.

I have begun to grow frustrated by the time Better Call Saul spends with Gus and Mike, or more specifically, any aspect of the cartel world that doesn’t feature Nacho or Lalo. There simply doesn’t seem to be enough worthwhile Mike- and Gus-related story material to justify the amount of time the series spends with them. “Dedicado a Max” provides many examples. Mike spends much of it recuperating from his stab wound in Mexico, surly about having been saved by Gus, but it’s all fairly inconsequential because we learn nothing new or revelatory about his character. Yes, Mike slowly bonds with the woman at whose house he’s staying, but we already know he can take a while to warm to someone, or that he has carpentry skills, or that he’s handy enough to fashion a cell phone charger out of spare parts, or that he has trouble expressing gratitude, or that he doesn’t like being manipulated, etc. etc.

When Gus finally shows up, he lays out Mike’s crossroads: Mike can either continue down the self-destructive path he’s been on since the start of the season, or he can become Gus’s soldier in his war against the Salamancas (and by extension, Don Eladio). Their exchange is a bit of a relief, simply because it affords Gus an opportunity to show a side of his character that we haven’t seen in a long time: his culture, his altruism, his refinement. Yes, his hatred is his most defining trait, but he’s also very different from the gangsters in the Salamanca crew.

Gus tries to impress these things upon Mike because Gus is at a disadvantage, needing something from Mike and possessing no leverage to obtain it. Mike remains unconvinced, however, until Gus begins to explain his motivation. When Gus utters, “Revenge,” a sigh of acknowledgment passes through Mike, who understands it all too well. Mike needed to hear Gus’s motivation in order for him to see Gus as anything other than just another drug dealer – it's likely that this will be what bonds them. However, most viewers don’t need to hear Gus's motivation because we are already very familiar with it from Breaking Bad, thus the episode ends before Gus explains the precise nature of his revenge.

And therein lies the problem. This entire scene is relatively predetermined. While it’s nice to be reminded of Gus’s righteousness, it’s nothing new, and neither is Mike’s eventual loyalty. Much like the business with the super lab last season, “Dedicado a Max” is simply drawing a line from A to B without offering much in the way of additional depth or nuance. “How did Mike come to be Gus’s dedicated soldier?” is hardly a burning question, and so far the answer hasn’t added anything to our understanding of who these two characters are (quite unlike how Jimmy’s story is adding so much to Saul). Much like my impatience with the Jimmy portion of the show last season circa “Talk,” the repetition of familiar story beats is trying my patience. Learning something new about Gus and Mike, or making Lalo and Nacho more involved in their affairs would greatly alleviate the strain this corner of the show is under. It’s not a coincidence that my patience has come to a crossroads simultaneously with Nacho and Lalo being absent for two episodes in a row.

Much like Mike, Kim is also at a crossroads, except Kim’s crossroads is enlivened by the open-endedness of her journey, even though like Mike she seems determined to take the dark path rather than the light one. Kim and Jimmy begin their con of Mesa Verde, with Jimmy pulling out every ridiculous shenanigan he can think of to delay the bulldozing of Acker’s house (the writers had a lot of fun here), attempting to frustrate Kevin into moving the call center somewhere else. However, Kevin, bully that he is, refuses to be bullied himself into considering the alternative lot, even though it’s the most prudent and expedient thing to do.

Kim’s crossroads comes when she and Jimmy debate the merits of continuing the con or calling it quits. Interestingly, it’s Jimmy, not Kim, who is ready to throw in the towel when Kevin is unwilling to budge, noting that it was risky for Jimmy to get involved in the first place, and that their next logical move would be to go after Kevin personally, which is “nasty” and “dangerous.” However, Kim can’t let it go, and chooses to travel that more dangerous road.

It’s an interesting development on two accounts, the first being for what it says about Jimmy. “Nasty,” “personal,” and “dangerous” were always operative strategies in Saul’s playbook on Breaking Bad, but thus far haven’t been a main part of his strategic repertoire on Better Call Saul, and even when he has gone personal, he’s felt bad about it (like when he manipulated the elderly Sandpiper residents to settle when he needed money). That he’s wary of pursuing this option with Kim speaks to the lengths he still has to go before he becomes the kind of person he is when we meet him on Breaking Bad.

The second reason this development is interesting is because it’s yet another instance of a character refusing to take the easy way out of a precarious situation. The longer the Acker-Mesa Verde feud lasts, the more at risk Kim becomes, since it’s such an obvious conflict of interest, yet just like Jimmy and Walt, Kim also chooses the riskier path. Rather than “pop the champagne with the other winners and smile like you mean it” as Jimmy puts it, Kim chooses to continue the con. Like with Walt and Jimmy, the reasons are rooted in her traits: her upbringing (which we learned more about two episodes ago); her aversion to losing; the thrill she gets out of running cons with Jimmy, and her strong sense of right and wrong.

Of course, this last trait makes Kim’s decision to continue the con more difficult, since it’s pulling her in two opposite directions: continuing to act in bad faith as Mesa Verde’s principal attorney is wrong (and dangerous), but sticking up for Acker is right (at least by her moral calculus). The danger is underscored when Schweikart confronts Kim near the end “Dedicado a Max.” Unlike Kevin, who senses a scam but mistakes the scammer for Acker (blinded as he is by Kim’s ultra-competence and effectiveness), Schweikart knows exactly what Kim is up to. He insists she take a break from Mesa Verde to protect Kim (and likely the firm, despite his protests to the contrary), which in turn forces Kim to react as if she has no idea what he’s talking about, because that’s how she would react if she wasn’t running a con. Kim publicly and angrily confronts Schweikart in front of the firm’s staff and junior attorneys, making a big show of it in order to quell any rumors to the contrary. However, when she returns to her office, she realizes it might have done more harm than good, since it didn’t seem to convince Schweikart, and because now she might have sewn seeds of doubt in other staffers when previously there had been none.

Earlier in the episode, Kim seemed to have found a way to attack Kevin, and rather than faking a smile like Jimmy encourages her to earlier, instead she flashes one of the most genuine, heartfelt smiles we've seen her wear. It would be touching if it didn't also instill fear over the destination at the end of Kim's chosen path. As warm as this smile might be, I fear there might be few like it remaining.

Other thoughts:

- One of the funny things about Better Call Saul being a prequel is that it makes some of the characters seem to age backwards, ala Benjamin Button. Here, we’re reintroduced to Barry Goodman, Gus’s on-call doctor in Mexico, whom we first met in season four of Breaking Bad, and who also appeared briefly in seasons three and four of Better Call Saul. He’s noticeably older now than he was then. The same goes for Gus’s henchman Victor.

- Jimmy’s first ploy in delaying Mesa Verde: pretend to change Acker’s address to confuse the construction crew and sheriff’s office. It’s a variation on exactly what he did to trick Chuck in season two.

- A list of Jimmy’s other ploys: planting fake Native American artifacts on Acker’s property; suing Mesa Verde on behalf of the water district; claiming there’s a flaw in original land grant, claiming the contractor is an escaped felon; irradiating the ground, and spray painting a faint image of Jesus on Acker’s wall and inviting a church to come marvel at it.

- Jimmy wants a full debriefing from Kim about her meeting with Kevin in order to appreciate the con they’re running, which leads to some funny roleplaying where Jimmy pretends to be Kim. “Paint a picture!”

- Kim’s anxiety about continuing the con is also evident when Jimmy calls Mike about being his private eye. Her anxiety is emphasized through the staging and framing: she’s so close to Jimmy that she juts almost fully into frame, even in what would otherwise be shots of only Jimmy. It’s a really effective use of film style.

- Kim is unnerved by her path because continuing to con Mesa Verde also means meeting Jimmy’s underworld contacts, in this case Sobchack, who makes his first appearance since season one, where he was thoroughly humiliated by Mike. Kim’s nervous energy prior to the meeting is a wonderful contrast with Jimmy’s calm.

- It turns out that Sobchack is actually a competent private eye, doing a relatively thorough job of trying to find dirt on Kevin, even if he seems to have come up empty. However, Kim spots something in his photos that gives her an idea for how to attack Kevin. It seems to be something involving the Mesa Verde logo. Perhaps she'll have Jimmy sue him for copyright infringement?

- Sobchack might be more competent here than he appeared to be back in season one, but he’s still a bit of a blowhard and an idiot, like when he suggests beating the shit out of Kevin as a second option when he couldn’t find any dirt on him. Jimmy quick shoos him out of the office before he can scare Kim further.

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